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On Baseball Writing

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Want to be a writer? Here’s some hopefully not terrible advice

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at Baltimore Orioles Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s get this out of the way upfront — this article isn’t going to be about the Cardinals, at least not really. I’m more of a peripheral writer here than anything else at this point, coasting on the efforts of people like Aaron, Tyler, Heather, Josey, and John, but even for me, this article is not going to be very Cardinals-heavy. I do hope it will be interesting, though, and hey, I get to pick the topics here. Today, I want to write about how I got into writing about baseball in the first place, and the lessons I’ve learned as a result.

My path to writing is probably not one you’ll follow. It starts with ten years of working in finance, bouncing between a few banks and a few hedge funds. Statistically, you probably don’t share this life experience. I feel strongly that your background isn’t that important when it comes to getting into writing, though — if it was, I certainly wouldn’t be doing this now. What mattered way more is that I just love watching baseball. Not only that, but when I see something I don’t understand, I’ve always liked analyzing it, trying to pull it apart (metaphorically) to see how it works.

I’ve also always loved writing. I wouldn’t say I was particularly well-trained in it, and I certainly didn’t get much chance to write in my old job, but I’ve always really enjoyed putting words on paper, whether for other people to read or just for myself. It’s a good thing, too, because between writing here and at FanGraphs, I’ve probably written more than 200,000 words in the past year and change. If you don’t like writing, then yeah, this isn’t going to work.

Those two things don’t sound like much: you have to love writing, and you have to naturally want to analyze and ponder things. It helps if those things are baseball, of course, but nothing’s stopping you from writing about a different sport, or politics, or whatever your heart desires. I just happen to love baseball, and baseball fortuitously has a rich and varied set of things to analyze and tinker with.

If that’s all you need to get into writing about baseball, then lots of people are prospective baseball writers. I really do believe that’s true, though of course it’s only half of the equation. You won’t be shocked to know that baseball writing is ever so slightly less remunerative than my old job. For all of last year, I was writing here just for funsies, and I only turned it into a real thing at FanGraphs after deciding, for totally unrelated reasons, to get out of the finance game and move to the West Coast. Don’t get into the baseball writing game for the money, I guess is what I’m saying.

With that out of the way, if you want to be a baseball writer, what are some lessons I’ve learned? First, write a lot! The best way to get better at writing is to do it over and over (and over and over) again. Josey initially let me write here after I had written a few FanPosts, and boy were those bad. I went back and read some of them this week, and let’s just say I’ve gotten better over time. I didn’t take a writing class or anything — I just wrote over and over and, between feedback from others and myself, honed out the rough parts.

I can’t stress enough how important that part is. Want to get good at something? Do it as much as you possibly can. Do it publicly, so that if you screw up you’ll know. Don’t give yourself any excuses to slack off. Practice isn’t enough — you have to practice with determination, practice in a way where you can’t give a subpar effort.

Writing a lot has other benefits, too. Have you ever searched for something interesting to say about the fourth middle reliever on the depth chart? Have you ever pored over a utility infielder’s stats trying to find something readers would find interesting? I have. I haven’t necessarily done it successfully, but just doing the work has really helped. If you want to learn how to write on a deadline, there’s really not much you can do aside from just write on a deadline.

Writing is key, but analyzing is really important too. I’ve gotten better and better at shaping queries the way I want to on Baseball Savant, at understanding what I can get an interesting angle out of and what I can’t. Find enough busted leads, spend time hunting down things that don’t work long enough, and you’ll start to get a good idea of what you can and can’t do with the tools at your disposal. I wanted, for a long time, to write something about the value of having two good prospects at the same position. It wasn’t a matter of just digging up data, though; there was no way to do it with the skills I had. I probably wasted ten hours of brainstorming time on that last year trying to get a Carson Kelly article out of it. When I finally built a tool to get future projected player value, I immediately knew how to use it because of all that time spent doing the wrong thing.

Build new tools. I started out with a decent knowledge of Excel (Google Sheets in my case, but you get the idea) and not much else. I’ve slowly added things as time has gone on, whether it’s ways to look at plate discipline, sheets that crunch individual Savant downloads into usable outputs, or Python scripts. It’s helpful to have a base of knowledge you can return to, so that you’re not reinventing the wheel with every article you write. I’ve been writing five articles a week for the past month or two (four for FanGraphs and one here), and if I had to invent a concept from scratch every time I wrote, I’d never find the time.

Oh yeah — Python. Learn to code! If you’re going to try to write about baseball with an analytical bent, I strongly recommend learning some computer programming. When I started writing for VEB last year, I had nearly zero programming knowledge. I’d taken about two weeks of CS 101 in college before deciding I was more into beer and sleep than learning Java. I’d watched a coworker make something in VBA, truly the worst language. That was it.

In a year and a half since, I’ve learned enough Python and SQL to do things. Not to be good at programming, mind you, but enough to fake it. I wrote some Monte Carlo simulations to estimate future player value. I figured out how to make a database, and how to scrape a database for whatever you want using SQL. How did I do it? Google is your friend. I learned half of what I know from taking free online courses, 45% from Googling what I was trying to do and reading Stack Overflow threads, and the other 5% through trial and error. It’s not pretty, but it’s enough.

Why is this so important? It’s hard to do some stuff without it. The ideas you need some kind of bulk processing for, you really need it for. I wrote something earlier this year for FanGraphs where I looked at every instance of a pitcher going from 3-0 to strikeout in three pitches. That’s not exactly something you can dig up by clever use of a splits tool. I wrote another piece where I calculated each batter’s expected HR/FB rate by bucketing every line drive and fly ball by exit velocity. There are like 50,000 of those! I did something where I simulated two nearly identical pitchers 10 million times to see whether fly ball pitchers or groundball pitchers were more volatile. You simply couldn’t do stuff like that without automating it.

SQL, in particular, is really useful. Want to look up Matt Carpenter’s minor league swing and contact rates? You’re going to need a way to efficiently sort through a database. Want to look at every Triple-A batter who played for the same team in 2018 and 2019 and figure out changes in home run rates? That’s not something you do by hand. Literally right before I wrote this, I was writing about my non-Cardinal relief pitching crush Nick Anderson and wanted to look through all of baseball for six-game streaks by the same pitcher with the highest strikeout rates. You think you can do that without some tool that parses data sets?

This might sound daunting, overwhelming even. Computer programmers are those dudes in Silicon Valley who stay up all night watching anime and drinking Mountain Dew, or whatever. I’ve thought that too at various points in my life, been intimidated by coworkers who could manipulate data in Python while I stared dumbly at Excel. You can learn it, though — it’s never too late to start. It’s incredibly helpful, and it’s all free online. Want to analyze baseball? Work at it.

Take feedback willingly, greedily even. You don’t have to take everything someone tells you as gospel, and you certainly shouldn’t change your writing style just to try to please everyone. Hearing what people like and don’t like about what you do, though, is tremendously valuable. Talking to people about it is even better. I can’t tell you how much I’ve learned from answering questions that people have about my articles. Not so much because they’re always right and I’m always wrong, though that’s happened plenty of times too. No, it’s mostly that it’s easy to get a little too set in your ways, to think it’s obvious that the way you think about things will make sense to everyone else.

One trick I relied on extensively when I started out was having my wife read through everything I wrote. I was prone to getting off on little tangents and explaining myself haphazardly. My wife was incredibly good at telling me when things didn’t track right, or when there was a concept she wanted me to explain more clearly (she’s a lifelong baseball fan, and a good proxy for what you’d expect someone to know if they hadn’t been obsessively reading FanGraphs for years). Over time, though, you the readers replaced that editing, because if I didn’t explain something clearly, I’d hear about it. Not all comments are gold, of course — many are just people trolling — but it’s still been super valuable to me.

One more thing: the baseball community is amazing. When I started writing here, I wasn’t very good, and writers here gave me pointers and were generally nice to me. When I recorded podcasts with Heather and Tyler last year, I had no idea what I was doing, and they helped me figure it out. When I wrote some analysis of starters versus relievers for FanGraphs this year, no less of a baseball personality than Tom Tango chimed in to tell me what he liked and didn’t like.

Last but not least, it helps to get lucky. I never would have started writing if VEB didn’t lose Craig to FanGraphs and hire to replace the loss. Who knows if that would have happened if FanGraphs didn’t lose a boatload of personnel to teams in the prior year. I was one of 500 people to apply to FanGraphs this year (for a position that again, by luck, opened up because teams hired writers away), and any time you apply for something that 500 people want, luck is a huge part of getting it, no matter your skill level. I’m lucky that I was even in a position to do any of this in the first place, and that my wife is into it. This isn’t a helpful thing for becoming a writer (oh, just get lucky! Thanks Ben!), but it’s worth mentioning because it’s true.

I wouldn’t be where I am today in terms of writing skill if all these factors didn’t line up. Writing is really challenging, and you can’t just naturally be good at writing a ton of words a week that other people actually want to read. Still, if I can do it, you can do it. I started out in this with absolutely no contacts, no programming skill, and no writing experience. You’re not going to start out with less tangible writing skills, because it’s just not possible. It’s down to effort, down to wanting to do it and putting in rep after rep to get it right.

So that’s basically it. Love writing: write so much you feel like you can’t write anymore, then write a little more after that. Build up little tricks as you analyze, build tools to leverage that analysis, and learn a bit of computer programming to make your analysis easier. Take feedback. Take advice. Get lucky. Most of all, though, love doing it, because if you don’t, it’s not going to work for you.

To everyone not trying to become a baseball writer, which I have to assume is the vast majority of VEB readers: uh, sorry. This one wasn’t really for you. It’s something I wanted to write about, though, because more writers is never a bad thing, and because I wish someone had written something like this down for me when I started. Honestly, if you didn’t get this, you were probably getting something where I complain about how bad it is to bat Tommy Edman second, and you don’t need more of that. The specifics in this aren’t for everyone, but hopefully there’s still something to learn there. Want to improve at a job? Work your butt off and learn new tools. That’s all I’ve got for you today.